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How to Build a Communications Response Plan

In our recent webinar, we shared valuable insights from 2020 to develop communications strategies for mission-driven organizations. We shared lessons learned from 2020, including how to think about crisis communications differently, focus on internal communications, and ensure your actions communicate something to your organization’s audience. Now that you know you need to have a plan, here are some steps to help you build a communications response plan. The components of a response plan include teams and training, process and procedures, and aligning perceptions and values. 

Identify your communications team

First, you should create a small agile, communications response team and determine each member’s roles and responsibilities. Ideally, this team will include your CEO, president, or a senior member of the communications team as well as representatives from core functions like, IT, and HR who can make decisions around messaging on behalf of their own team.    

This team should define how messages and content will be broadcasted and who will handle the various communications channels, including who will be responsible for developing content and monitoring the audience response to the event. Even if there are other members of the organization who need to weigh in, having a small team with set responsibilities will help ensure you can respond quickly and flexibly. 

Conduct training

Next, you should identify and provide ongoing education to staff who will be responsible for speaking with the media or providing information to external audiences. Have regular, scheduled checkpoints to assess what’s working with your response—and what’s not. Even when you have a solid communications response plan in place, things will change and you will need to adjust as the situation evolves. Consider creating unannounced training drills to see how quickly you can get your communication operations up and running. Try not to plan for every event (you can’t anyway!); your plan should be flexible enough to respond to the unexpected. Focus on making sure you have a process and a workflow in place.

Develop and activate the process

Your next step is to conduct a content inventory and audit. A firm understanding of your existing content and strategies will help you identify gaps and determine whether you have the right content and you’re using the right channels to reach the people you need to reach.

Figure out who needs to be “in the room” to make the decision to respond.  Whoever has final approval should be in direct contact with the leader of the response team if they are not on the team themselves.  Also, think about what response times need to look like. In a true crisis (something that is both important and urgent and has a direct impact on your organization), you may need to respond in 24 hours, six hours, or even 30 minutes. If you are responding to an event that has an impact and is important but may not be immediately urgent—such as a longer-term COVID response for your organization—take your time to strategically decide upon an approach.  Even when you have more time, it’s better to have a process ready to go and to rely on a smaller team that is trusted to make strategic messaging decisions. 

Create procedures for your internal and external communications

Your internal audience is an important one, so you should determine how staff will receive key messages. This could be through department meetings, email, all-hands meetings, staff managers, the company intranet, or all of the above. Ultimately, the channel you use doesn’t matter as much as making sure that your staff knows where to go for information and who to ask if they have questions.

During the current Covid-19 crisis, organizations had to reconsider how best to reach staff who may be newly remote and dealing with other changes. Make sure you have a consistent message for staff and give them the information they need to feel informed and supported without telling them things that are not relevant to them or their work. Take note of frequently asked questions and make sure you have an avenue to respond to those questions.

When communicating to external audiences, make sure you have the correct information and it is shared strategically. Different external audiences need different information at different levels. If you need to provide information to the general public, social media, public blog posts, or a virtual news conference may be appropriate. If you need to reach clients or stakeholders, that may be better achieved through an email from leadership or a  direct one-to-one conversation in the case of close relationships. 

Align perceptions and values

Your internal audiences care about what happens in your organization because they have something to gain or lose as a result of organizational activity. Offer as much transparency as possible to your teams with the focus on preparing and sharing information about the response. 

Companies, and their brands, are judged by how they respond to unpredictable events. Organizations that listen to and act on their clients’ and employees’ needs rather than making assumptions about those needs will come through more trustworthy and credible. Organizational values should match the actions taken in terms of messaging and communication. Your organization’s messaging has an impact; people will usually respond to your messaging based on: 

  • Fact: Your audience will be listening for the facts, so you should get the facts right, repeat them consistently and ensure all credible sources share the same facts. First impressions are lasting impressions. Research indicates that the first message received on a subject sets the stage for comparison for all future messages on that subject.
  • Speed: The speed with which you issue your first communication can indicate how prepared your organization was to respond, that there is a response in hand, and the appropriate action is being taken. That said, accuracy is more important than speed. Respond as quickly as you can while still being strategic and thoughtful.
  • Empathy: Messages and content perceived as empathetic and caring provide greater opportunity for acceptance by the audience. 
  • Competence: Use prior and established relationships with part or all of your audience to demonstrate trustworthiness and an ability to manage high-stress situations. 
  • Openness: Convey all the relevant information and avoid overwhelming people with information that may not be relevant to them. Provide an avenue for people to ask questions or get more information, if appropriate. 

A plan that fits into your overall communications strategy will be invaluable when you need to communicate a coordinated response to an event. You want to provide accurate information, convey that you are listening to both internal and external audiences, and show you are willing to respond. Making sure you have a process in place before you need it means your response team will know what is expected of them, and you’ll be able to respond more quickly and flexibly to any situation that comes your way. 

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